Making cut-away binding models

by Roger Williams

Making is a vital part of conservation education. It's a fairly obvious fact that it is much easier to know how to fix something if you know how to make it in the first place.

With that in mind, binding is emphasized as a significant part of our education in the books program at West Dean. We are encouraged to try our hands at a wide range of binding structures to broaden our understanding of how books function. And, during our first year in the program, we spend a good deal of time fashioning binding models.

Book models serve several purposes. They are useful to the maker as a way of gaining hands-on understanding of the functioning of a particular book structure, and they can be used as a visual tool to communicate a book's composition. I have found it a useful practice to make cut-away models of the books I have at my bench. The models assist my decision-making process while fixing the original book, function as visual aids in my treatment reports, and serve as surrogates in discussions with my instructors and classmates.

The first model I made was for a mid-19th-century travel book, Murray's Handbook for Travelers in Kent and Sussex (London: John Murray, 1858). It is in early cloth and has a fairly simple, tight-back, case-bound structure. When it came to me, the spine cloth was in tatters, the boards were loose, and the sewing was breaking at several points in the textblock. I knew that it would need an entire re-sewing, and that having a practice go on a model would help me in this process.

I made the model as accurately as possible with the available supplies, down to the paper and cloth selections and textblock format (a12 b8 B-R12 S6 T2). Every compositional element is made visible: the sewing structure (straight-on on two tapes), mull, printer's scrap spine-lining, heavy blue spine-lining, tight-back cloth, thin boards, etc.

The second model is of a more complicated binding, from a collection of notes on a boys' school, Wyllies Notes (n.p., 1895). It is half-bound in sheep skin, sewn on five sunken cords, with whip-stitched outer gatherings, a tube hollow, false raised bands, and relatively thick boards. This book arrived at my bench in pieces, held together with sellotape, with one board and most of its spine missing and torn endpapers. As my repairs to the book required an entirely new structure, I was curious to see how the book would have originally functioned. Making the model helped me to see how it all went together.

Again, the model was made as accurately as possible, with the same dimensions and textblock format (6 gatherings of 7 bifolia).

One curious element of this structure is its whip-stitching, which is done on its outer gatherings. This was done supposedly to give the book strength, but the actual outcome was a stiffening of its outer pages, causing them to tear.

A goal with this model was to find some justification for the whip-stitching. So, though it frightened me to do so, I whip-stitched away.

The cutaway spine on the completed model leaves all elements exposed: the sewing structure with whip-stitching, lining, tube hollow, false raised bands, false endbands and leather. The laced-in cords are exposed as well, though this element was estimated as the original lacing-in could not be seen.

The conclusion that I drew from this model was that the book's structure was, simply put, impractical. The combination of all its superfluous elements-five cords, whip-stitching, tube hollow with false raised bands, large boards and small shoulders-thrown onto a relatively small book made for a binding that is far too tight and clunky. But, as is often said in the world of binding history, "That's just how they did it." Binders had their methods and tended to stick to them, and couldn't be asked to take the valuable time to evaluate the most appropriate structure for each individual book. But that just leaves more work for us conservators.